19 Jun Climbing Mount Shasta
by Frank Florence
all photos: Brian Wood
The Hotlum-Bolam Ridge is a readily visible feature on the north side of Shasta, forming a divide between two of the larger glaciers on that side of the mountain. Three of us, Gary Armstrong, “Woody” (Brian Wood), and me, had driven down on the last weekend in May to see if we could get a summit and maybe some skiing before the summer melt-off reduced the route to cinders. We could see that rocks along a lateral moraine between the glaciers were exposed, as well as rocks around the pinnacles guarding the approach to the summit. But both the main field of the Hotlum Glacier and the portion of the Bolam glacier that we could see were snow covered. What we couldn’t tell was the condition or quality of the snow. We also saw that there were a few crevasses beginning to open on each.
Photos we’d seen from a week earlier made it look like we would hit snow part way up the trail to our intended camp at 10,000’. But when we unloaded packs and skis at the trailhead, all we saw was sand and cinders. We’d known that Mount Shasta had experienced a particularly low snow winter, but even so, we were surprised by the extent of the melt-off by the end of May.
We started the four mile trek to our intended campsite. Gary and I had hopes of skiing the upper portion of the Hotlum Glacier, and we loaded our packs with the extra weight of skis and boots. Woody wisely skipped that extra burden. It was a hot afternoon and we were all tired and sweaty when we finally dropped our packs after ascending the first 3,000’. I hoped that a good dinner would bring us all around, but it became apparent that Gary had probably over exerted himself. His back was bothering him and he felt he was moving so slowly that he excused himself from climbing the next day.
Alpine starts always seem too early, but we knew we needed to ascend as much of the lower slopes as we could while still firm. So, when the alarm went off at 3 AM, Woody and I started breakfast and prepared to head out. I double checked with Gary; although he was resting somewhat more comfortably than the night before, he decided to pass on the ascent. Woody and I finished our preparations and headed up under the illumination of our headlamps.
In the first hour or so, we worked up a broad snow field leading to the ridge. The pale light of the morning sky gradually strengthened and we picked a line that was just on the Hotlum Glacier side of the ridge, leading to a snowy ramp that angled onto the upper portion of the ridge. The snow under foot was firm and we walked at a steady pace in crampons. But I’d left my skis in camp. The texture of the snow was not great for skiing. In places, the snow surface was made of small, icy shingles. Elsewhere, it was a mass of frozen lumps. It was much too early in the morning to find corn snow, but the conditions were such that even as the day heated, there was little chance of the snow becoming corn. I’d debated the pros and cons of skiing the sticky slush I’d likely find in the afternoon and had made the decision to walk the route with Woody. We consoled ourselves with the prospect of a good glissade.
By mid-morning we were high on the ridge, moving into the scrambling portion of the route leading to a pair of tall towers referred to as the Rabbit Ears. We made our way past them and looked across at another pinnacle, the Shark’s Tooth, just to our west. We moved around to the right of the Rabbit Ears and continued up scree and boulders until we could see the blue ice and exposed crevasses of the upper Bolam Glacier. Another ten minutes or so of traversing brought us to the plateau at Sulfur Springs, just below the summit spire. We could see dozens of climbers, almost all coming up from Avalanche Gulch, headed up and down the herd path to the top. Woody and I slipped into the procession and followed the comfortable, wide footpath to the top.
Shasta is a big mountain and any ascent route involves some 7,000 feet of elevation gain. I’d not been on this route previously and thought it would be a good choice, particularly in light of the low snow conditions. For climbing purposes, that worked out OK. There were no technical sections on the climb (we had rope and anchors but never deployed them) but I imagine that could change as more bare ice becomes exposed on the glaciers. The snow conditions were a disappointment for skiing, though. I think we got there just a little too late this year. But all was not in vain. On the descent, when the snow got super sticky and balled up in our crampons with each step, we finally got our glissades: about 1,100’vertical in a fraction of the time it would have taken us to walk down. And lots more fun.